This post discusses work considerations and employment support for newcomers who have disabilities, whether unemployed or underemployed.

(For a discussion of the related topic of income support in Ontario available to refugee newcomers with disabilities, see the website of the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, here and here.)

Barriers and challenges newcomers with disabilities may face

“Disability” is defined by Statistics Canada as an “activity limitation or participation restriction associated with a physical or mental condition or health problem.”

According to the Ontario Disability Support Program’s expanded definition, a person with a disability:

a) “has a substantial physical or mental impairment that is continuous or recurrent and expected to last one year or more;

b) the direct and cumulative effect of the impairment on the person’s ability to attend to his or her personal care, function in the community and function in a workplace, results in a substantial restriction in one or more of these activities of daily living; and

(c) the impairment and its likely duration and the restriction in the person’s activities of daily living have been verified by a person with the prescribed qualifications.”

Disabilities may take may forms, both physical and mental. Some will affect employability much more than others. That being said, this article provides an overview only, and does not consider the challenges and opportunities relating to specific disabilities.

The high variation of each newcomer’s education, work experience, skills, mental health, and mobility, combined with the individualized nature of the disability, make it difficult to provide a comprehensive list of types of work to consider. One introductory article worth a read for those in Canada is Great Jobs for People with Disabilities. Bear in mind that it is a U.S. site targeted at those with at least a high school education, who are able to pursue a course of instruction over time, and in all likelihood can communicate well in English. It has no particular suggestions for refugee newcomers who are disabled or who have limited English.

As difficult as it may be for individuals with a disability to find good employment in Canada, those who are also refugee newcomers often find themselves in even more complicated situations. Factors in play here include psychological trauma, resettlement pressures, a lack of English language proficiency, and lower levels of education, training, and experience.

Issues of mental health can significantly impact a newcomer’s desire to work and even look for work. On the other hand, finding satisfying work can greatly improve a newcomer’s mental health through community membership and a sense of purpose.

The Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of BC offers a thorough overview on helping newcomers with disabilities.

For a video about mental health aimed at private sponsors of refugee newcomers, see Refugees, Mental Health and Sponsorship, produced by the Refugee Sponsorship Training Program.

Though not exclusively focused on Canada, this Quartz article delivers a global survey as fits its title,How we can make the world a better place for immigrants with disabilities.

Job carving

Job carving” is an employment strategy utilized by progressive employers. It involves analyzing and modifying the responsibilities and tasks of an existing position in order to split them between two individuals. Although this can be done with any type of employment, in order to increase productivity and profitability, job carving is particularly useful in creating jobs for people with disabilities. As one example, the successful experience with job carving at VanCity, in British Columbia, as described on WorkBC‘s website.

Employers of note

It makes sense for a newcomer with a disability to first look for work among all potential employers within a job sector of interest, ideally for which he or she has some skill and experience. However, regardless of anti-discrimination laws in effect, it may be beneficial to seek out employers known for their diversity hiring, including individuals with disabilities. See, for example, Canada’s Best Diversity Employers (2019). See also the “champions” and case studies highlighted on The Ontario Disability Employment Network’s website (ODEN). A Google search related to employment and a newcomer’s particular disability is another source for employer prospects and potential leads, such as IKEA’s recent relaunching of their refugee employment program.

Provincial government employment support

Each province has its own disability support program, which may consist of both income support and employment support.

Employment support offers help to individuals with disabilities to find and keep a job and to advance their careers. Income support is in the form of financial assistance provided each month to help with basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. Income support also includes benefits, like drug coverage and vision care, for clients and their eligible family members.

Here, we are talking about employment support. For details about employment support offered in Ontario, please visit the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) online.

To be eligible for employment support under the Ontario program, one must:

  • Be 16 years old or older;
  • Live in Ontario;
  • Be able to work in Canada;
  • Have a disability that is expected to last 1 year or more; and
  • Have a disability that makes it difficult to find or keep a job.

Employment support is not available to individuals in Ontario who are:

  • Eligible for or are receiving disability benefits from other public or private sources; or
  • Receiving assistance through Ontario Works.

ODSP employment support is offered through numerous program service providers. See The Ministry of Children, Community, and Social Services’ website to find a service provider in a particular city within Ontario. For additional information, see the ODEN website.

Federal government employment support

From time to time, the Government of Canada issues calls for proposals from service providers under the Opportunities Fund for Persons with Disabilities program, which, in the past, has had an annual budget of around $40 million. The program provides “financial support to community organizations that assist people with a permanent physical or mental disability that restricts their ability to perform daily activities. [Its] participants typically have significant detachment from the labour force and are ineligible for assistance under Employment Insurance employment benefits.” The funding may be used for on-the-job supports or for starting a small business. This program is for the general population, including but not specifically for newcomers. Financial support under the program may include:

  • funding for employment or self-employment training;
  • wage subsidy paid to an employer;
  • funding for adaptive equipment/tools;
  • tuition and books;
  • living expenses;
  • disability supports; and
  • dependent care and/or child care.

As of July, 2019, there are 11 active programs under the Opportunities Fund that lend a hand to people with disabilities in search of meaningful work.

The Canadian government also offers a Disability Vocational Rehabilitation Program, but to qualify, applicants must have made Canada Pension Plan contributions for four of the previous six years, which makes it unlikely to be of value to refugee newcomers.

Programs and resources

There are very few employment programs specifically for newcomers with disabilities. An in-depth internet search turns up just two: the Learning Disabilities Association of Toronto District offers the First Steps to Successful Career program. Developed specifically for convention refugees, government-assisted refugees, landed immigrants, and live-in caregivers, this free program offers advice on resume creation, interview strategies, networking, and computer and literacy skills. LDATD also organizes a program for all newcomers called Settlement Program Learning Abilities Service Hub(SPLASH). Its full-range of counselling and referral services are meant to empower and uplift on the way to finding solid footing in Canada.

There are many programs and websites dedicated to assisting all people with disabilities in finding employment. There is no reason why a newcomer couldn’t access resources such as:

A unique program has been established in London, Ontario: a neighbourhood grocery store called Old East Village Grocer, which is said to be the only social enterprise of its kind in Canada. The store is owned and operated by ATN Access for Persons with Disabilities, Inc. It serves as a training centre for clients who have significant workplace barriers due to disability, offering the chance to gain employment skills in a real-life job setting.

The Developing and Nurturing Independence (DANI) program, located in the GTA, is also based on the social enterprise model. DANI’s Supported Employment Program uses a person-centered model to create a job that suits the employee’s strengths and disability-related needs.

Job searches

A newcomer with disabilities might pursue any of the usual job search strategies and may be wise to do so in combination with an employment support service, which may be aware of organizations with current openings for those with disabilities.

These online matching databases, among others, may also be of interest:

  • Discover Ability Network, funded by the Government of Ontario and powered by Magnet, which connects people with disabilities directly to Ontario businesses; and
  • WORKink, which provides a dedicated space for inclusive employment postings by equity employers, including those related to disabilities, though not specifically for newcomers.

The various job boards available for all individuals, including the Government of Canada JobBank and Indeed, offer filters for persons with disabilities. However, results displayed are often not appropriate, seemingly having been included only because the posting employer claims not to discriminate against individuals with disabilities.

Other search strategies that may be more productive for job-seekers with disabilities are networking—including through private sponsors of refugee newcomers—and job fairs, such as the following in the GTA:

Volunteering may also be a good option for gaining references and may possibly even lead to paid work opportunities.

Financial support for employers

Employers who are keen to hire newcomers with disabilities can access programs and supports offered by their provincial governments. In many cases, this takes the form of government funding for making the workplace accessible. The National Educational Association of Disabled Students has a national directory of such programs on its website.

Entrepreneurial opportunities

As an alternative to paid employment, a newcomer with a disability may wish to start his or her own entrepreneurial endeavour, perhaps from home. In the GTA, JobSkills is one organization that offers a workshop program on Self-Employment for Persons with Disabilities, although this program is not designed for newcomers specifically.

The Canadian Centre on Disability Studies has a handbook entitled: Best Practices in the Home-Based Employment of People with Disabilities. While this document is focused on home-based telework arrangements with an employer, and while communications technology has advanced considerably since its publication in 2002, many of the issues and strategies discussed are applicable to a home-based business today.

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